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Blasphemy allegations – the new way of muzzling free speech in South Asia

Freedom of expression in South Asia's Muslim-majority countries has never been under a bigger threat than today. And it comes in the form of blasphemy allegations, forcing journalists and bloggers to self-censor.

Government critics and secular writers in Pakistan and Bangladesh have never been more vulnerable. They fear religious extremists and their governments alike when it comes to blasphemy allegations, which are enough to put them in prison or get vigilante mobs to lynch them.

After Bangladesh witnessed a spate of killings of secular activists, Pakistan is experiencing a government crackdown on liberal bloggers, journalists, academics and activists. At the same time, religious fanatics are targeting secular social media activists, who have to go into hiding or self-censor to save their lives.

The "abduction" of liberal bloggers in January – allegedly by Pakistan's security forces – and the recent lynching of a secular journalism student in the northwestern city of Mardan by a mob have shocked activists and the journalist community in Pakistan. There has been increased social media vigilantism, which is forcing critics of the government and military as well as human rights activists to censor their thoughts and words.

Pakistan is already one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, but the blasphemy issue has made it even more dangerous for them.

Pakistan Proteste nach Mord an Mashal Khan (Getty Images/AFP/B. Khan)

In April, a 23-year-old journalism student in Pakistan was killed by a vigilante mob over allegations of blasphemy

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding a reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists have said the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

'Political witch hunt'

Rights group say the government is using the "blasphemy tool" to intimidate critics and dissidents.

In January, renowned Pakistani rights activist and university professor Salman Haider disappeared from the capital Islamabad. Three other secular activists - Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza - also went missing. After weeks, all these bloggers returned to their homes, with Goraya claiming that he was "abducted" by Pakistan's law enforcement agencies.

On January 16, the missing bloggers' issue took a new turn when a resident of the capital Islamabad filed a complaint with the police accusing the missing activists of committing blasphemy. The complaint was followed by a media campaign against bloggers portraying them as "anti-Islam."

Pakistan's conservative sections started sharing images and quotes from a number of secular Facebook pages that they claimed were administered by activists like Haider and Goraya. Although there was no proof that these people were running those pages, the South Asian country's anti-liberal TV commentators criticized them for engaging in "anti-national" and "anti-religious" activities.

But why has the government suddenly intensified its crackdown on academics, writers and intellectuals?

While these activists work in different fields, they all have one thing in common: their consistent and sharp criticism of Pakistan's security establishment and conservative groups. Rights groups say the authorities want to stifle dissenting voices as an increasing number of people are criticizing their policies and actions through social media and other cyber platforms. And that is also the reason why the Pakistani government has introduced stricter measures to control social media and the Internet.

"The crackdown on dissidents is actually a political witch hunt," Arshad Mahmood, a Pakistani writer and social media activist, told DW.  "Those who are critical of the state, the military and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project are being picked up by the government agencies. I wish the authorities had shown the same enthusiasm in targeting Islamist militants," Mahmood added.

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Intimidation and self-censorship

The situation in Bangladesh is quite similar to Pakistan. A series of ghastly attacks on bloggers in the past few years has showcased the deteriorating state of freedom of expression in the Muslim-majority country. People are now feeling more threatened to express their views online.

Local media have reported scores of attacks in the past few years that have killed at least 35 people and injured over 130.

While radical groups claimed responsibility for those killings, the Bangladeshi government has so far denied any presence of international terror outfits on its soil.

As attacks on secular bloggers and activists have intensified, Bangladesh has slipped in international press freedom rankings.

Benjamin Ismail, head of Paris-based Reporters without Borders' Asia-Pacific desk, told DW the situation of press freedom in the country is extremely concerning. "The many attacks of the last few years have provoked a sharp increase of self-censorship among journalists and bloggers. If the government continues to refuse to react firmly and significantly, what were already sensitive subjects to cover will become irreversible taboos," he underlined.

Faheem Hossain, a researcher of social media and assistant professor at the State University of New York in Korea, believes Bangladeshis, in general, are feeling less secure to express themselves either online or, to some extent, offline due to the recent gruesome killings. "This sense of insecurity is transcending from individual level towards online and offline media as well," he told DW.

Pakistan P.E.N. Inhaftierter pakistanischer Journalist (picture alliance/dpa)

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists

A battle between secularism and extremism

Activist Bonya Ahmed lambasted Bangladesh's Information and Telecommunication (ICT) Act, arguing that it was being used to muzzle free speech in the country.

"The newly amended ICT act has made the criticism of religion on the Internet punishable with up to 14 years of imprisonment," she told DW. "The ICT act is being widely used to persecute and harass critical writers, bloggers and journalists. Police have arrested numerous bloggers, writers, journalists and publishers under this law," she added.

This view is shared by analyst Hossain. He believes liberals in the country are facing threats from both the government as well as the extremists. "As a result, people in Bangladesh are now feeling threatened to express themselves, particularly online."

Ahmed said the real issue is not only about fanatics reacting violently to criticism of Islam; it is also a battle between secularism and extremism.

"Historically, fundamentalists have always felt threatened by scientific facts and secularist ideas," she added. "It is easily understandable why they perceive us as their prime enemy."

The killing spree has led a number of bloggers to flee the country, atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin relates. "At least 28 bloggers have fled Bangladesh over the past years, and another 40 are seeking ways to do so due to the constant fear of being attacked," he told DW.

Mohiuddin has been living in Germany since 2013 after being attacked by religious fundamentalists in Dhaka and jailed by the government for criticizing Islam. His blog was banned, which ultimately led him to leave the country.

"A number of international organizations are now helping Bangladeshi bloggers who are in desperate need of help," said Mohiuddin.

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Optimism

Despite threats to their lives, journalists and activists in both Pakistan and Bangladesh refuse to give up the fight. They say they would continue to strive to report and express their views independently.

"Civil society needs more unity now to protect freedom of speech. In the age of social media, independent thinkers have a platform to voice their concerns against certain actions of the government, and it is their right," Nahyan Mirza, an Islamabad-based development professional, told DW.

"Pakistani society, unfortunately, is being controlled to a large extent by the right wing," Mirza added. "These groups will never tolerate social, cultural and intellectual change that poses a challenge to their power. But I am hopeful the change will come soon."

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